Depth through thought
OUCC News 2nd November 2011
Volume 21, Number 8
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Editor: Andrew Morgan firstname.lastname@example.org
Foreword - I thought it might be nice if someone were to write a short, humorous series of articles to help inspire all the prospective new members of the club. In the meantime, here's something I knocked together about little expedition I had with Duncan (CUCC) over the summer.
My flight touched down at Chongqing in the early evening thus avoiding the heat of the day, just 43 Celsius according to the pilot's announcement. Duncan was already on a train from Chengdu to Wulong and I was to join him en route. Thus it was that I was forewarned that the train had no air-conditioning, or cold drinks. But praemonitus, praemunitus as the Romans may have once said, so I ordered a healthy supply of ice cold beer from the train station forecourt waiting until the last possible moment to retrieve them from the freezer where they live, much to Duncan's appreciation.
Two days later we set out on the final 10km hike into Er Wang Dong village arriving around midday and wasting no time in seeking the cool, inviting darkness of the cave. The aim of the expedition was to connect #2 Great Cave with #3 Great Cave, as they are locally known. The former is currently about 45 km long and the latter around 60km. This has been the stated aim of pretty much every expedition here since modern exploration began 10 years ago, but this time we meant it. Recent discoveries had ushered the realistic prospect of a connection tantalisingly close.
Top of our hit list was Homo Horizontalis, a long under-looked passage on one of the trade routes. As one walks along a 10m wide, 2m high passage there is a brief gust of barely perceptible cooling air previously attributed to a change in passage cross-section. On a recent trip, however, Rich Gerrish had investigated further and discovered an area where the mud bank didn't quite reach the roof and thus at roof level, just above line of sight, a sneaky flat out crawl burrowed off to the west - the direction of #3 Great Cave. We followed the draughting crawl to a draughting inlet and the limit of exploration!
The passage ahead was perhaps best described as temperamental. At stream level it was narrow, winding, and tortuous. Overhead it was spacious, muddy, and sloping. It was also often too wide for bridging. Whichever level we tried to make progress at always felt suboptimal at best. However, it did keep heading West. Things started looking up when we intersected an obvious East - West fault line but the relief was short-lived.
Ahead was a choice: a low crawl in the water or a sketchy climb to a squeeze. Duncan sketched his way up the climb and wriggled into the squeeze. I tackled the crawl - beyond was another sketchy climb up to where Duncan had just emerged and the way on offered a series of similar obstacles. Nothing which a good selection of hand-lines and a reliable support team wouldn't make short work of. However, all we had was nothing very useful. Back to the surface and back to the drawing board... [continued]
The cow was fluorescent green.
I paused from my trudge up the mountain to ponder the bovine anomaly. Having recently obtained a first class degree from Oxford University, I was confident in setting my mind to work.
Cows are seldom green: this specimen was likely to have been artificially enhanced. The nearest source of cow dye was the tub of fluorescein (more commonly used for tracing underground streams) in our kitchen hut. To have covered itself so thoroughly, the cow must ha-
I dropped my rucksack and started running. Camp rapidly came into view, complete with a gaggle of cattle surrounding the repurposed shepherd's hut housing our stores. Approaching the open door with mounting trepidation, I became aware of a noise from within. The distinctive sound of a cow wallowing in expensive caving equipment and carefully stockpiled food chafed with me, and I charged through.
It took a few seconds to register that I was trapped in a small stone enclosure with five hundred kilos of panicking and copiously horned beef. Having recently earned a first class degree from a prestigious university[I think we have got the point here... Ed], my well-honed mind quickly told me that a large stick was required.
Later, when I'd stopped bleeding, I surveyed the wreckage. A thick porridge of cooking oil, rice, green dye and caving kit coated the floor. Our clothes - stored tidily in a heap - had been masticated with obvious enthusiasm. The stove lay upside-down, leaking petrol over a bag of flattened vegetables. This carnage paled into insignificance, however, when I looked to the corner which had been home to our stash of wine and coffee. All gone.
I tried to break the news gently as the expedition's other cavers returned. An intrepid group, we were accustomed to adversity, but we knew the situation was dire. None of us had gone without wine before, and even if we survived the night cataplexy would set in rapidly in the absence of morning coffee.
We had one hope. Deep beneath us, amidst caverns measureless to man, lay our well-provisioned underground camp. Only half a kilometre of solid rock separated me from my next caffeine fix. Jaw set, heart steeled, I picked up my helmet.